23 January 1994 | It is a Question of Human Rights, Not Numbers
First published in The Sunday Express
I was on a TV phone-in last week and during the course of a quarter of an hour segment, there were 2,000 calls from young men in the country who wanted to know how to tell their parents they were gay. I was flummoxed as to what to tell them because, if they go to the library and look for a book, they will look in vain. If they call up a gay switchboard, they are very likely to find the lines blocked. That there are 2,000 people, who in their desperation call up a television programme to ask what to do about something so central to their lives, is a sad fact of life.
The House of Commons will soon vote on whether to lower the age of consent for gay men from 21. I firmly believe it should be reduced to 16. I hope that in so doing it will allow us to talk in a mature way about what it is to be gay and to understand that it isn't the end of the world for the individual or society. We know from experience that when men "come out" to their parents — and it took me 49 years — they are likely to be met with a barrage of confusion, shock and disapproval. They are asked why they choose to be gay, when of course they didn't choose it. They just are.
An equal age of consent may open the floodgates to knowledge and discussion and the removal of ignorance and prejudice, then I think that a very good thing. Nobody anywhere in the world has ever come forward to say that he was seduced into homosexuality where, of course, the converse is that many gay men are seduced into heterosexuality. They are encouraged by society to go against their innate nature and to marry and have children, and those marriages fail when finally the man accepts that he is gay and family life breaks up.
The fear people have that, if this law is relaxed, more 16 to 21-year-olds are going to be tempted into having a gay sex experience, has no bearing on adult sexual orientation. That is fixed by puberty, a fact which is recognised by the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Psychiatrists. This should reassure parents' fears that young men go through a homosexual stage, through which they will never emerge if they have homosexual sex.
There are certainly some MPs who think reducing the age to 18 would be some sort of compromise. One of the arguments of those who support 18, or indeed support the status quo, is that sexually active gay men are spreading disease, particularly the HIV/AIDS virus. Research refutes that. Fifty per cent of gay men in a recent newspaper poll had one partner and the rest were practising safe sex.
If consent were fixed at 18, men between the ages of 16 and 18 who have sex with each other would continue to be cut off from safe sex education. They don't receive it now in school because for a teacher even to talk about having gay sex is practically illegal. It is after all a criminal act. Those young men, if they go to their doctors, will find some who feel obliged to report to the police the fact that one of their patients is having sex under the age of 21. They are cut off from the advice of older gay men who are behaving very responsibly, in being adamant that their associations should have a lower limit of 21.
Any 16-year-old going to a gay organisation will be warned: "No, you mustn't come here. What you are doing is a criminal act." They are cut off in every direction they look for advice. One by one, in response to their constituents, MPs are committing themselves to 16. We can be absolutely certain there will be law reform. The people who want to keep the status quo are very small in number.
Whether it is 16 or 18 remains to be seen. The House of Commons is at its best on free votes, because people can speak their minds, and feelings run high on both sides. In the matter of principle of equality, 18 would be a nonsense. The equality one is asking is not that people should think homosexuality is equal to heterosexuality. We all have different lives to live. But since when in a democracy did one say that a person is different, therefore he will not be treated equally? Women are different from men. Blacks are different from whites. Jews are different from Christians. Yet under the law they should be equal.
What would the role of the police be if 18 wins? Will that mean now is the time to root out those 16 and 17-year-olds and protect them from themselves? John Major's Government has decriminalised homosexuality. It was he who announced that homosexuality was increasingly accepted in society and therefore was no longer a bar to advancement in the Secret Services. And it is John Major who has now given one day over to this debate.
I suspect Mr Major would really like the House of Commons to make this a more tolerant society without waiting to be told to do so by Europe. Ireland, Spain, Italy, all these Cathoiic countries have no problem with it. Right across Europe there is equality. And what have been the results? Is there more promiscuity? Is there more disease? Are more people being converted to homosexuality? The answer on all the evidence is, no, no, no.
It is a doubtful and dangerous argument to say that talking about being gay will make people gay. I think part of education is revealing the world as it is. You should then be able to make up your own mind about that world. If 16 is an appropriate age to marry and have children, then surely it is an age when you can choose your partner in bed.
I would expect when the law is chanced, whether now or later, people will continue to find homosexuality unattractive or immoral. I wouldn't agree with them, but they will have every right to educate their children in that way. But for the State it is another matter. If we are talking about health and the position of this minority in society, small as it may be, understanding can only be helpful, not only to gay men but to the world at large.